It was only a matter of time before teammates Ibrahim Rashid and Spencer Gudewill found each other.

When the two Harris students shared a macroeconomic theory class in 2021, Rashid was in the early stages of “Long COVID,” lingering Coronavirus-related health problems that affect more than 200 million people worldwide. He had lost his ability to walk and had difficulty breathing. At the same time, Gudewill was dealing with his own “invisible” illness: post-concussion syndrome, the long-term effects of a traumatic brain injury he incurred during a flag football game in 2019. His symptoms included vertigo, difficulty speaking, and brain fog. Both of them had found school exceedingly difficult and nearly dropped out.

Spencer Gudewill and Ibrahim Rashid

“We were like, ‘OK, let’s buddy up,’” recalls Rashid, 25, a Pakistani-American who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. “We decided to share information and notes and make sure that the two of us survived the class.” When Gudewill, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia. relapsed, Rashid did the work. When Rashid got sick, Gudewill stepped up. “It was a real tag team of friendship,” Rashid says.

In another of their classes, Foundations of Social Entrepreneurship, students built a complete business plan, drilling down on details including investor mindset, product development, and impact investing strategy. Both found themselves energized by the process. “Spencer and Ibrahim were among the students that drove engagement in that class,” says Will Gossin, their instructor. “Both of them always had their hands up. They were just so earnest and authentic, and they really wanted to tackle important problems that were close to them.”

Will Gossin

At some point, Rashid and Gudewill realized they suffered from many of the same symptoms—symptoms that came and went in endlessly perplexing ways—and they compared strategies for dealing with, say, muscle pain and hypertension. As Rashid went in and out of emergency rooms and doctor’s offices, stumbling through a dysfunctional health system getting all kinds of conflicting diagnoses and advice, Gudewill coached him. They talked about wellness management strategies including nutrition, sleep hygiene, and insurance that helped Rashid navigate the day-to-day difficulty of living with an acquired disability. “We’d both seen so many physicians who couldn’t really help in the way that we needed to be heard and understood,” says Gudewill, 30. “We realized there such a big missing piece in the medical system and wellness community today.” Rashid puts it more succinctly: “I felt like doctors were gaslighting me.”

Both were taking matters into their own hands, trading ideas with a community of like-minded people who shared what they’d learned both online and off. Rashid was learning the value, and limitations, of wearable technologies to monitor his health when he noticed something: The metrics that he was receiving from his device were tailored to help athletes improve their performance—not sick people managing their health.

“When I had a low heart rate, I was told I was primed for exercise and should work out a lot that day,” recalls Rashid. “But to some people with Long COVID, straining too much can trigger post-exertional malaise, which is a flare of symptoms and debilitating fatigue that can make people bedridden for hours or days.”

Ibrahim Rashid, Catherine Dudun, Rahim Rasul, Spencer Gudewill, and Spencer Asay hard at work.

An idea was born. If they could somehow short-circuit the health system’s inertia and bloat by plugging people directly into the larger pool of knowledge that came from direct experience rather than theoretical research, they might have something for Gossin’s class. Why not create software for wearable devices that catered to people with chronic conditions, built using crowdsourced advice from the people themselves and carefully curated by doctors?

As they incubated the idea, wrote up a strategy about how to invest in pandemic resilience (what they referred to as a “mass disabling event”), and began conducting interviews with industry experts in technology, healthcare, and digital health, the whole enterprise became less theoretical. One doctor, the head of a Long COVID clinic, told Rashid that medical school taught her how to keep people from getting sick, but nothing about recovery.

With a niche to fill and a compelling story to tell, Rashid was soon discussing Long COVID with policymakers including Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, and Faiz Shakir, the chief advisor of Bernie Sanders, and pitching their idea to tech companies. “Pitching the idea went well, but it wasn’t really working,” Rashid says. “There are companies that can help but they weren’t willing to work on it.” A shift was necessary. Instead of attempting to influence policy, Gossin encouraged them to use entrepreneurship as a way to change behavior and outcomes. “The idea started as a venture,” Gudewill said. “And it evolved into the concept for a startup to help people with chronic illnesses such as Long COVID better manage their symptoms.”

Catherine Dudun and Ibrahim Rashid

They recruited an interdisciplinary team of fellow UChicago students including Spencer Asay, a medical advisor; Rahim Rasool, a software engineer; and Catherine Dudun, a social worker, all of whom sensed an opportunity. Soon, Strong Haulers, “a patient-centered technology startup that empowers individuals living with chronic conditions (such as Long COVID) to identify and test wellness strategies for chronic symptom management,” was born.

The business proposal centers on an app for wearable devices that would provide users free access to a database of symptom management strategies crowdsourced from users with common conditions and curated by medical professionals. The goal? To democratize access to shared user insights, which would connect people and tap into a larger knowledge base than the practitioner model and give patients added agency and confidence in their own treatment. Gudewill likes to call it “Wikipedia for chronic symptom management.”

Ronald Gibbs, Program Director, Policy Entrepreneurship and Competitions

It’s an idea that has captured the ears—and imagination—of all kinds of major players. With help from Harris program director Ronald Gibbs, the Strong Haulers team earned a fellowship in the highly influential Clinton Foundation’s Global Initiative University (CGIU),and were semi-finalists at the University of Chicago’s Social New Venture Challenge Accelerator. They even auditioned for Shark Tank, the ABC reality show in which budding entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. “Somehow we had less than nine hours to convert our eleven-minute presentation into 90 seconds,” Rashid says. The presentation created a massive stir, with countless Long Haulers coming out of the woodwork to express excitement.

Will the concept succeed? A good indicator lies in the curriculum of Gossin’s entrepreneurship class. All of his students read Mismatch, Kat Holmes’s 2018 book on design and technology that pushes the theory that the best innovations come from building for disability; for example, the keyboard, which was originally created for the blind so they wouldn’t have to verbally dictate letters to be written.

In other words, if you build for inclusion, everyone benefits.

While Strong Haulers is formed on this foundation, both Rashid and Gudewill are quick to emphasize that it’s not meant as a replacement for seeking medical help. The goal is not to treat or cure people, but rather lend advice on managing symptoms. “What do you do when you can’t see your neurologist for three months because they’re backed up?” Gudewill asks. “We want to provide knowledge in a way that is easy to understand, trusted, and curated and they can just access at a click of a button—not through talking to 100 different people over however many years.”

To most medical practitioners, Long COVID is still a mystery. There are no conventional treatments or tests to identify the cause. There is no pill on the market that manages the 200-plus symptoms. Research is unfolding at this moment. Even as Rashid manages a complex array of symptoms, he remains optimistic. “The guy has faced so many setbacks and been in the ER so many times,” says Gudewill. “But he turned that energy into something good to try to help other people.”

Rashid and Gudewill plan to keep repeating their story—because they’re living it. “I’m a COVID Long Hauler, and Spencer is a concussive,” says Rashid. “We're trying to build a product that solves the problems that we share with millions of others, and there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility that comes with trying to serve the disabled and chronically ill market. But our own lived experiences motivate us to listen empathetically and create something that can help others.”